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In-depth Review: Exploring Quantum Physics on Coursera

Detailed review by Class Central user Francesco Pedulla on a course which will help you learn the fate of Schroedinger’s cat once and for all.

Review by Francesco Pedulla’. Francesco is a Mechanical Engineer by education, Information Technology Architect by profession, occasionally (Adjunct) University Professor.

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I took this class out of a strong desire to better understand quantum mechanics. QM is a topic I did not study at the University (my background is Mechanical Engineering), so in the past years I repeatedly tried to learn the subject on my own. Now I own many tens of books on the subject, ranging all levels of difficulty, and I studied a couple of them with an effort comparable to the preparation of a University exam. Years ago, I also attended (most of) a semester-long University course on QM. With limited results, as you can expect given the intrinsic difficulty of the subject. On one hand, I was no longer a beginner. On the other hand, I was not satisfied with my level of understanding – and the way QM is presented by most of the sources I could tap. I was ready for something more.

Exploring Quantum Physics with Dr. Charles W. Clark and Dr. Victor Galitski

PREPARATION

I am a fan of MOOCs and I like Coursera, so when I found that the second session of “Exploring Quantum Physics” was going to start in a few months, I decided to dive in. While waiting for the class to start, I reviewed the archived lectures and I also bought one of the author’s book, which is recommended but not mandatory, as usual with Coursera. I was deadly serious to learn the most out of the class.

LECTURER

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The main teacher is Professor Galitski. His CV is impressive (you can find a summary of it on Coursera’s website) and is also the author of an excellent book of solved problems in QM. He presents all the theoretical lectures, while the other teacher (Prof. Clark) is more focused on applications and computing. They are both good; even if I enjoyed more Prof. Galitski’s lectures (closer to my personal interests), Prof. Clark’s lectures were very useful in providing concrete examples, including some nice computational exercises.

REQUIREMENTS

“This is a graduate level course. Learner beware.” 

The Coursera web page for the class states it very clearly: this is a graduate level course. Learner beware. Also, the web page says that “Previous exposure to quantum mechanics would be helpful”. That looks to me like an understatement: I find it hard to imagine a student getting high scores in this class without significant previous exposure to the topics. Maybe a mathematician with a specialization in differential equations and functional analysis? In any case, such a person is unlikely to have had no previous exposure to QM, which is one of the most important applications in his area of expertise.

THE COURSE

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The course lasts eight weeks. Each week you have to listen to about two hours of lectures and do your homework (quizzes and assignments). The course covers a lot of stuff, including topics you can consider relatively advanced such as path integrals, superconductivity, phonons, Dirac equation. My notebook for the class (in A4 format) is about 100 pages long – many of them filled with equations only (but I admit that I often filled in missing steps in the derivations). Recommended readings include some seminal articles by Bohr, Schroedinger, EPR, Dirac, Feynman. Each of them is extremely interesting.

Final grading is based on the scores you get in the assignments, that are corrected automatically. The assignments are feasible, provided you understood the content of the lectures and have some level of mathematical maturity. For example, the assignment on variational methods is not hard, but can be challenging if you have never seen a variational problem before.

I typically spent 8-10 hours per week, with peaks up to 12. 

The web page of the class reports that the course should take you 5-7 hours per week. Again, imho, an understatement. I typically spent 8-10 hours per week, with peaks up to 12. I imagine one can do with a lower effort, but getting a high final grade (>90%) would be very difficult.

CONCLUSION / NEXT STEPS

At the end of the class, I realized two things: my comprehension of QM had performed a (quantum?) jump and I had had no time to do any problem from Prof. Galitski’s book. So, I started slowly working my way in it. The shear amount of material makes the enterprise virtually impossible – at least for a person with a full-time job in a very different field. I decided I needed to take another class, possibly introducing Quantum Field Theory, the logical next step. There are many useful recordings publicly available. For example, let me point you to Sidney Coleman’s lectures on QFT at Harvard. A MOOC experience is really different from a set of recorder lectures, albeit outstanding. After some research, I decided I have two options now:

1) wait for the next session of the class of Effective Field Theory offered by edX; unfortunately, there is a significant gap between the two courses, so a lot of preparatory work is required (essentially, self-studying an introductory textbook like Peskin&Schroeder or Zee)
2) wait for the next session of EQP – yes: according to the course web pages, the next session will expand on advanced applications and I feel a repetition will help me master the material.

Needless to say, I gave this class five stars. Fully deserved. And a warm “thank you” to Prof. Galitski and Prof. Clark.

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